First it was Cecil Rhodes. Now it’s a bronze cockerel. Oxford’s and Cambridge’s dreaming spires are perspiring in the heat of student outrage at Britain’s colonial past, constantly on the back foot as student demands both grow and spread for symbols of their links with Britain’s colonial past to be expunged. As it happens, I reckon those two examples are quite different.
Oxford and Cambridge: mementoes of a colonial past?
Jesus College, Cambridge, is currently embarrassed by a bronze cockerel (known as the Okukor) which has graced its dining hall for more than a century: it is one of a collection of treasures collectively known as the Benin Bronzes that were looted from that country – in reprisal – in the 19th Century. The college has now removed it, and is thinking what to do about it. I suspect it should be repatriated to Nigeria, not least because it was something stolen under pretty vicious circumstances.
Rhodes presents Oriel College, Oxford, with a different problem. He was a benefactor of the institution, and it’s rude for the beneficiary not to acknowledge such generosity, even long after the donor’s death. Besides, it is a moot point as to whether he was a racist and a criminal, or merely (and I use that qualification with some caution) a man of his admittedly imperialist era.
The campaign against Rhodes in Oxford is called Rhodes Must Fall: sympathisers seem to be extending that ever-growing wave of protest. There are even suggestions that a statue of Queen Victoria in London’s Royal Holloway College should be removed: she, after all, was the Queen Empress who presided over the greatest and most ruthless period of expansion of the British Empire.
Many wrong things were done in the name of that empire. There were human rights abuses, theft, murder, and appalling bloodshed when people in the newly acquired territories dared to mutiny against their masters. To be sure, there is plenty in the empire story that does not form a glorious part of our history.
Except that history is full of the growth of empires: and until a century or so ago (or less) it seemed a natural way to run things. Indeed, I’m sure most Brits in Victoria’s reign believed the country was spreading civilisation as well as trade (and as well as making this country fabulously rich at the time).
The history of every empire, when examined, contains shameful episodes: yet neither Queen Victoria nor Cecil Rhodes was a Hitler-like figure bent on on domination and the destruction of whole races. The German nation still feels a burden of guilt for Hitler and the Holocaust: by contrast France is not required continually to apologise for the Emperor Napoleon (though they don’t commemorate him much either). We should feel ashamed of the slave trade that enriched such cities as Bristol and Liverpool: but we are not required to bulldoze them in repentance or reparation.
The best thing we can do with those lessons from the past is to learn them: sadly, as we all know, history is full of examples of people who didn’t learn from history and wrought mayhem and destruction as a result.
So do I disapprove of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign? Not at all. I dislike all excess, but I am pleased that young people feel strongly about such matters, that they are prepared to protest and make a noise: apathy, the state of mind of not caring but getting on selfishly with our own lives, is a far greater danger than youthful activism.
No, above all we don’t want people rushing around stirring up apathy.